The Concept of Creative Reuse

Creative ReUse

I’ve been asked to share with other artists and art patrons, segments from a talk I recently presented at the Center for the Arts Evergreen on the concept of Creative ReUse, which in the context of the green movement is a form of Upcycling – 

Take a few minutes and read on…it just might expand your thinking about the role of art in society.

If you’re not up to date on green jargon – upcycling is a greener version of recycling that adds value to otherwise disposable items by transforming them into something of greater value. 

While in the United States the concept of upcycling is only recently becoming part of any serious discussion dealing with recycling trash and unwanted materials, it’s something that some of you may have direct connection with. 

Anyone have family stories about grandmothers fashioning dresses from old curtains or flower sacks? Making rugs from old rags? Anyone quilt bedspreads from segments of old fabric?

Anyone turn leftover dinners into tomorrow’s lunch or compost it into garden fertilizer?

That’s Recycling

The term Upcycling was thrown around in the 70’s & 80’s but didn’t really became part of recycling conversations until the mid 90’s as people started advocating for ways to extend a products life by creating things from stuff that would typically be discarded.

• In the world of architecture- civilizations have been upcycling materials to use as building components for centuries and in past decades Green Architects have been doing things like upcycling plastic bottles and old tires for use as framing for exterior walls. 

• Third world and developing cultures upcycle discarded objects as a way to develop economic growth.

• In the future worlds depicted in science fiction film and novels, post apocalyptic civilization upcycling leftovers from our century are also necessary for survival.

• In the art & fashion world, the Steam Punk movement has developed by incorporating upcycled materials

So where does Creative Reuse enter the conversation?

For me it was part of growing up. 

My grandfather on my father’s side was a junk dealer who salvaged parts from discarding plumbing fixtures, rebuilt and resold them. Ultimately opening a large wholesale plumbing supply business on Chicago’s’ south side that my father became part owner of.

My mother’s father had been a tailor - creating high fashion fur and leathers goods in New York and Chicago. He was also an inventor, cobbling together an amazing assortment of strange but useful things. 

Though long retired from being a tailor, he retained a big old industrial sewing machine and boxes full of scrapes old fur and leather in his workshop.

Image how lucky I was as a creative soul. I had weekly access to explore and play in a junkyard full of odd and interesting stuff …and when on vacation to visit my grandfather in Florida I had access to a trove of exotic leather & fur, a monster sewing machine to use and a wizard to mentor me.

Back then I never thought about it as recycling 

As a young artist it was second nature to use everyday found objects, assembling components to make stuff. A good scissors, my Swiss Army Knife and a bottle of glue were my tools of choice. I carved bits of found wood, nuts & fruit. I actually carved and sold dried apple head sculptures at an art fair when I was 15.

Then, when my mother got called into to see the high school principle because I carved a landscape into my desktop during biology class. I think she understood that creating art was going to be part of my life.

My life took a turn in the mid 60’s when I found myself in Berkley CA. during the summer of Love. – Anyone remember the Summer of Love? There l repurposed a small closet under a winding staircase in an old Victorian home into my sleeping quarters and took to the streets and discovered that I could make a few dollars by manipulating leather to create things like hippy headbands, fringed bags and other new age stuff. 

Coming back to Chicago, home to the stock yards and a lot of leather processing tanneries, I made a deal with two of the largest tanneries to come in and sweep their floors a few nights a week for free. 

In exchange I was allowed keep the trash on the floor. That trash consisted of leather remnants blemished and discarded scrap leather. With a constant source of free leather, I set up shop at home making an array of leather goods and sold my creations to 5 of the major head shops in Old Town Chicago for a few years. That in turn helped finance my going to art school. (I’ve made more Jimmy Hendrix white leather fringed vests than you can imagine)

While my initial area of arts concentration in art school was clay, at some point I decided I want to try my hand at carving stone so I again turned to recycled materials. I soon found that chunks of large corner stones from derelict/demolished Chicago buildings were great materials to practice on. 

From there the urge to carve in blocks of marble was too great to ignore. Where do you find large pieces of free Marble? 

Again I turned to recycling. I got to know the caretakers at Chicago cemeteries’ who let me rummage back behind crematoriums and out buildings through centuries of discarded broken tome stones and cart away segments of marble to practice my skills.

In the early 70’s I looked to creating more sculptural artforms and I learned to weld and forge iron, steel, bass, copper and stainless steel. But those materials were too expensive for an art students budget so I researched the world of industrial waste and became a certified dumpster diver. I actually made up some business cards that said “artist/dumpster diver.”

After getting caught knee deep pulling discarded metals from industrial dumpsters a few times to many, I meet with various managers at manufacturing plants and fabricators of architectural components and got permission to regularly scrounge behind the locked factory gates for metal cutoffs and waste materials.

By that time I understood the concept of recycling and used when describing my artforms. My metal sculptures using repurposed/recycled materials were well received by the public and collectors at art fairs. 

My Art degree gave rise to a teaching certificate and the opening my own art school and an art gallery. 

I then repurposed a vacant flower shop in Evanston Ill and became the founder and owner of Mindscape Gallery which over the course of 30 years was considered one of the top 10 Contemporary American Fine Craft Galleries in the United States, representing a lot of nationally acclaimed artists who incorporated found/ recycled/repurposed materials into their art.

As some of you know, in 2010 I stopped doing large-scale metal sculptures out of recycled materials. I moved from Chicago and am now living in the mountains of Colorado on 14 acres of forest land. The risk associate with working hot metals with an open flame is too much of a risk so I’ve gone back to working leather and now create sculptures using recycled vintage leathers and found objects. ( visit to see my current creations.)

With what I’ve shared about my background – you can understand that the concept of Creative-Reuse has been a major part of my artistic process.

In recent years art shows across the country have sprung up featuring the concept of Creative ReUse, which holds that that by converting refuse into artwork, the discarded trash can acquire a new aesthetic. And in turn, open the conversation that the resulting artwork can take on moral and conceptual dimensions.

My story is not all that unique. Artists have always been incorporating and adapting found objects to create their art. Carving in wood, stone, clay, drawing with carbon based materials, using natural dyes and stains to bring forth their artistic vision are just a few examples. Yet, as those materials and mediums have became more refined, they have also become more expensive. The alternative, for the creative spirit on a budget, is to adapt discarded manufactured materials into components to make their art. 

What’s taking place now is that the art world is leaping to the forefront of a movement that intertwines aspects of invention, innovation and imagination with the need for recycling manufactured materials. 

This in turn has also opened the door to new opportunities in the area of arts education by encouraging the creation of unique and original artforms by recycling/upcycling/repurposing-discarded objects.

We are learning that the concept of Creative Re-use introduced across environmental and educational sectors through the arts can actually encourage an insightful aspect of sustainable thinking and in offering extended life to materials that might otherwise end up in landfills.

To encourage those efforts I would like you consider the role you might be able to play in helping your community explore, develop or promote the concept of Creative ReUse.

Here are just a few possibilities I support that have been put forth by organizations committed to the concept of upcycling and Creative Reuse

Upcycling – Existing recycling and sustainability programs should be encouraged to add a category of “Upcycling” in order to redistribute a variety of discarded materials for use as possible art components to artists, crafters, educators and others.

Reimagining Art – Arts festivals and arts organizations should be encouraged to expand traditional art/sculpture categories to include a found object/ recycled art category and host exhibitions that feature art using recycled materials.

Environmental Education and the Arts – Schools and communities should develop activities and programs that encourage artistic innovation using upcycled materials and creative reuse. 

Creative Materials Exchange – Develop a way to access used, reclaimed, salvaged and donated art materials as free, low cost or bartered supplies for artists

As artists and arts patrons you can make a difference.


Ron Isaacson